The planet is in the midst of a climate crisis, and clothing production is fueling the problem, according to a new report Wednesday that frames organic cotton as a low-carbon route out of the morass.
To make its case, the Environmental Justice Foundation pulled together data from various sources, such as the fact that garment creation alone accounts for 6.7 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, or the equivalent of every person on the planet taking a 4,100-kilometer flight every year.
The reason for those figures is the energy-intensive nature of textile production, which has tripled over the past 45 years, the London-based nonprofit said. Depending on the fiber, a metric ton of textiles generates between 15 and 35 metric tons of carbon dioxide, compared with 3.5 metric tons for plastic and less than 1 metric ton for paper.
Overall, the textile industry contributes between 1.22 billion and 2.93 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide every year, though some estimates go as high as 3.99 billion metric tons. “According to that calculation, if the fashion industry were a country, it would rank third in global CO₂ emissions, behind only China and the United States,” the report noted.
The problem is expected to worsen as textile production and consumption levels continue to soar, the Environmental Justice Foundation warned. The average American consumes 37.6 kilograms of textiles a year. (Europeans fare a little better at 31 kilograms.) By 2030, global fiber production is poised to hit 145 million metric tons.
“This increase in production and consumption is causing large-scale environmental degradation,” the organization said. Since 2000, the quantity of polyester in garments has doubled, meaning that “now over half of all global fiber production is made from petroleum oil.” The demand for plastic-based fibers requires roughly 342 million barrels of oil every year. Throughout their life cycle, disintegrating synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon and acrylic are responsible for between 20 percent and 35 percent of all microplastics in the oceans.
Manmade cellulosics like viscose, which are growing in popularity, are responsible for the felling of 150 million trees annually. Over the past 15 years, more than 56 million hectares of forest have vanished into such materials, “contributing significantly to global heating.”
Natural fibers such as cotton, as they are normally cultivated, pose their problems, too, the organization wrote. Globally, conventional cotton employs 8.2 million metric tons of pesticides and produces 220 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. It is also a “thirsty crop,” drawing an annual 233 billion cubic meters of water, or roughly 238 bathtubs of water per person every year. Across the planet, water shortages are exacerbated by contaminated textile effluent. In Cambodia, for instance, the fashion industry is responsible for an estimated 60 percent of the country’s water pollution and 34 percent of its chemical pollution.
“The devastating impacts of the fashion industry are truly shocking,” Steve Trent, executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, said in a statement. “They are exacerbating the climate crisis, degrading habitats and poisoning people.”
While not a silver bullet, a switch to organic cotton is a “crucial part of the solution,” the Environmental Justice Foundation said. It offers a potential annual savings of 96.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, or the equivalent of driving an average car around the world 14,112 times. Sustainable cultivation also eliminates the need for toxic pesticides.
Organic cotton still requires frequent quenching—farmers can expect to expend 14,595 cubic meters of water per metric ton of cotton lint—but 95 percent of that consumption is “green water,” meaning precipitation or extant soil moisture, the nonprofit said. “There is a 91 percent reduction in blue water consumption in organic cotton,” it wrote.
Fashion producers and retailers, it added, should commit to ambitious, time-bound targets for inclusion of alternative or new materials with “low-climate impact,” including organic cotton, in their supply chains. Companies that have committed to the 2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge should accelerate their transition from conventional cotton by prioritizing organic cotton in their supply chains.
Meanwhile, the European Union should introduce a Border Carbon Adjustment on conventional cotton, the proceeds of which “should underwrite the cost of transition to, and the certification process for, organic cotton.”
“Organic cotton is a green solution that is already available—governments must use the tools they have at their disposal to encourage sustainable and ethical fashion and clothing, using fiscal and regulatory measures to encourage organic cotton while discouraging the highly damaging environmental impacts of conventional cotton production,” Trent said. “Clothing manufacturers and retailers must also fulfill their responsibilities and act to promote and provide organic cotton.”
As for consumers? They can support brands and retailers using organic cotton, or ask their favorite companies to “accelerate their transition from carbon-intensive materials to those with a demonstrable reduced impact,” including organic cotton. The Environmental Justice Foundation also recommended that consumers “reject ‘fast fashion’ culture” by buying less and buying quality.
Organic cotton production increased from 107,243 metric tons in 2012/13 to 239,797 metric tons in 2018/19, according to a 2020 Textile Exchange report. The year 2018/19 saw the second biggest harvest of organic cotton ever recorded, edged out only slightly by 2009/10.
Some 97 percent of the world’s organic cotton is grown in seven countries: India (51 percent), China (17 percent), Kyrgyzstan (10 percent), Turkey (10 percent), Tajikistan (5 percent), Tanzania (2 percent) and the United States (2 percent).
The extent of the Covid-19 pandemic is unclear, though it will undoubtedly influence current organic cotton trajectories.
“Over the next few months, perhaps even years, business planning and relations will be challenging and difficult to predict,” said Liesl Truscott, director of European & Materials Strategy at Textile Exchange, in August. “For cotton farmers, that unpredictability will impact the next growing cycle and, for textile manufacturers, brands and retailers, the next uptake and consumption cycle. One thing that is for sure is that the ‘new normal’ will require much more transparency and sharing of the risks and rewards.”